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Early Modern English Manuscripts


Early Modern English Manuscripts Collection

Tarlton Law Library holds a collection of more than 1,100 early modern legal manuscripts, primarily from what is now the United Kingdom. The earliest date from the fourteenth century and the most recent are from the early twentieth century. Detail from a court decisionThe manuscripts vary in size, length, and material.  Some are a single sheet of parchment just a few inches across, others are multiple pages on the largest parchment available (about 28" X 33"). Still, others are written on paper. The collection is an aggregate of several private and institutional collections that came to Tarlton gradually over the course of twenty years. Almost every conceivable kind of legal transaction is represented, as are documents from civil, criminal, and ecclesiastical courts. However, the overwhelming majority are property transactions. 

The manuscripts also represent an excellent sampling of English paleography, or handwriting, from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The handwriting on many manuscripts in the collection can seem illegible to modern readers at first glance. Some legal documents during this period were written in English Court Hand and many other were written in Secretary Hand. There are many resources available to help researchers decipher both these hands and understand unfamiliar dating, abbreviation and writing conventions of the time:

The National Archives offers a Paleography Tutorial as well as many helpful reference guides.

The University of Cambridge offers English Handwriting, 1500-1700: an Online Course.

And the Folger Shakespeare Library has amassed a comprehensive list of online resources for Early Modern English Paleography.

The collection is one of the largest legal manuscript collections in an academic law library in the United States.  The collection was recently re-inventoried and re-processed and Tarlton Law Library is pleased to make these documents available to researchers.

The selection of manuscripts featured in this exhibit was not chosen for cohesiveness, but rather as representatives of a very diverse collection. To search the digitized collection, visit Tarlton's ContentDM page. For more information about the manuscripts in this collection, please email